Sarah Kendzior is the co-host of the podcast Gaslit Nation and the author of the upcoming book Hiding in Plain Sight
In March 2017, Fiona Hill, the Russia expert who was about to become one of Donald Trump’s advisers on national security, warned that Mr. Trump and Vladimir Putin were two sides of the same coin. As the KGB-trained Russian President spent decades honing state propaganda to redefine Russian reality, Mr. Trump sucked Americans into his own vortex through tabloids and Twitter.
“This is a skill set that Putin acquired,” Ms. Hill explained. “[But Trump] knows how to get the media’s attention without the benefit of a state-controlled media. He does it all on his own. Mr. Trump understands how a free media works.”
Ms. Hill is no longer merely a scholar of dictators; she is now a player in their propaganda through no fault of her own. Her testimony at the impeachment hearing Thursday was an attempt to break through their façade by not only telling the truth, but explaining to Americans how the lies are constructed. “I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternative narrative that the Ukrainian government is a U.S. adversary, and that Ukraine, not Russia, attacked the U.S. in 2016,” she said. “These fictions are harmful even if they are deployed for purely domestic political purposes.”
In Mr. Trump’s reality TV world, positions are not filled but cast. From the start, Mr. Trump surrounded himself with larger-than-life loyalists whose defining trait was immovable fealty to the President even as his lawlessness became more brazen. Ms. Hill never fit into this world, and it is surprising that she lasted as long as she did. Like Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Vindman and Marie Yovanovitch, she is both an immigrant American and an expert on the former Soviet Union. None of these witnesses took democracy for granted because they had witnessed its grim alternative in post-Soviet kleptocracies. As experts, they were a threat in the administration, and they remain so outside of it, as the threats against all three of them attest.
By late 2017, the Trump administration had reached a point where its prior claim that the President had “nothing to do with Russia” had become untenable, due to things such as firing James Comey for investigating Trump’s Kremlin ties and partying with Russian officials in the Oval Office immediately afterward. The Trump strategy then became to flip the script and investigate the investigators. In their inverted world, Ukraine, not Russia, attacked the U.S. The witnesses to crimes, not the perpetrators, are the true guilty parties. Mr. Trump’s time-tested tactic of projection – accuse your opponents of what you are guilty – was deployed not only by Mr. Trump himself but by his backers on Fox News and other propaganda outlets.
What this meant is that by the time impeachment hearings rolled around, Republicans and Kremlin operatives had spent two years building an alternative narrative of 2016 while simultaneously engaging in the same illicit activity that this narrative was supposed to cover. The result is that last week, Americans watched both impeachment hearings and an aspiring show trial. The latter was exhibited in the opening statements of Devin Nunes, who recited a repetitive series of Kremlin talking points like the dummy of a bored ventriloquist.
Like other members of the GOP, Mr. Nunes is not a watchdog but a lapdog, capable only of doing Mr. Trump’s bidding. Witness Gordan Sondland, who candidly revealed the complicity of Trump administration members, is another example – and Ms. Hill called him out for it. “He was being involved in a domestic political errand,” she said, deploying a euphemism to describe Sondland’s complicity in the Ukraine shakedown. “And we were being involved in national security foreign policy and those two things had just diverged.”
In other words, Ms. Hill was working for the United States, while Mr. Sondland was working for Donald Trump. The darker question is who, exactly, does Mr. Trump work for, and toward what end. Mr. Trump has designed U.S. policy to please Mr. Putin while sabotaging any attempt to hold the Kremlin accountable for the 2016 election interference. This is a profoundly anti-American stance that, as Ms. Hill pointed out, puts the security of the 2020 election at risk.
The President’s ability to pull off another election heist relies on silencing people such as Ms. Hill, Col. Vindman, and Ms. Yovanovitch who have seen his machinations from the inside and can explain them to the American public. Impeachment hearings threaten Mr. Trump because they happen in an environment he cannot control, where a neutral arbiter can speak without media interlocutors. Fiona Hill debunked Mr. Trump’s fictions and followed federal law. That she did so at a time where following federal law renders you a subversive in the eyes of the President should unnerve everyone.
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